In early February, 32-year-old Swati Shial was diagnosed with cervical spondylosis, a degenerative weakening of the spinal disc usually triggered by an incorrect posture or by overusing neck muscles.
As an account director with a media agency, Shial easily spends more than 10 hours working on a laptop six days a week. The mind-numbing neck pain began while she was working on a crucial presentation that led her to stay glued to her laptop for three consecutive weeks, sometimes for three to four hours at a stretch without a break. "It started with the pain affecting my sleep but I got seriously worried when I also began to experience a constant tingling in my hands," says Shial, who lives in Vila Parle, Mumbai.
She was advised to place her laptop in a way where the screen was higher than her eye level to ensure a better sitting posture, exercise her back muscles to strengthen them, and use a memory-foam pillow. Shial's pain improved within weeks.
Catching them young
"Less than a decade ago, the condition affected people aged above 60. Yet, she is among the increasing number of young professionals under 40 years, who are being diagnosed with the condition," says Dr Abhay Nene, a consulting spine surgeon at Wockhardt Hospital, who treated her. "I get two cases each day of young people with neck and back pain; the frequency a few years back was about one case in a month. Most cases are triggered by repetitive injury and stiffness because of lack of adequate movement," says Dr Yash Gulati, senior consultant, department of orthopaedics at New Delhi's Indraprastha Apollo Hospital.
Ergonomics at play
Ergonomics at the workplace makes a huge difference. The lighting, desk height, placing of computer in terms of angle, height of the computer and placing of the footrest, all play a role in improving spine comfort. "Chairs must be comfortably cushioned with arm rests. The back should be tilted ten to fifteen degrees back and should not be ramrod straight as believed. For tall people, the chair should be deeper to support the thighs. The knees should be at the same level as the hips," adds Dr Gulati.
Taking a break from the workstation once every hour for five minutes is advised. "Ideally, you should stretch every 30 minutes but since it's not practical, an hourly break is a must. Just get up and walk for a few minutes while stretching the arms, neck, back and legs," says Dr Rajesh Malhotra, professor, department of orthopaedics, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).
Neglecting the pain could lead to a slipped disc, which is a far more painful condition. "One of the first warning signs of cervical spondylosis is pain in the neck and shoulders, which may lead to excruciating pain shooting down the arms," says Dr Nene. "If unchecked, it could hamper body's coordination abilities and make it hard to perform simple, day-to-day activities such as buttoning a shirt or brushing hair."
In the early stages, improving posture and strengthening neck and back muscles by exercising regularly helps reverse the condition. "Swimming is the best exercise to strengthen back and neck muscles. Tennis and badminton also help, but if the pain is severe, we recommend physiotherapy," says Dr Gulati.
Doctors, however, warn against popping painkillers indiscriminately. "I recommend paracetamol, which is the safest drug, on SOS basis but it is best not to depend on any medicines and be regular with the physiotherapy sessions. Most cases are relieved of the symptoms and very rarely would one need surgery."
(Illustration and icons: Ravi Jadhav)